I have been inexcusably out of touch with the controvery in Wisconsin about the adoption of the Common Core state standards for mathematics. I present without comment the text of a letter that’s circulating in support of the CCSSM, which I know has the support of many UW-Madison faculty members with kids in Wisconsin public schools. All discussion (of CCSSM in general or the points made in this letter) very welcome.
(Related: Ed Frenkel supports CCSSM in the Wall Street Journal.)
To whom it may concern,
We the undersigned, faculty members in mathematics, science and engineering at institutions of higher education in Wisconsin, wish to state our strong support for Wisconsin’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM). In particular, we want to emphasize the high level of mathematical rigor exemplified by these standards. The following points seem to us to be important:
- We know that what we have been doing in the past does not work. Nationwide, over 40% of first-year college students require remedial coursework in either English or mathematics. For many of these students, completing their remedial mathematics (that is to say, high school mathematics) requirement will be a significant challenge on their path to their chosen college degree. The situation in Wisconsin mirrors the national one. Over the University of Wisconsin system as a whole, 21.3% of all entering freshmen in the fall of 2009 required remedial education in mathematics. Over the Wisconsin Technical College System, the mathematics remediation figure is closer to 40%.
- The CCSSM set a high, but realistic, level of expectations for all students. It is unrealistic, and unnecessary, to expect all students to master calculus (for example) in high school. That would be the “one size fits all” approach that is often brought up as an argument against the Common Core. Instead, the CCSSM attempts to identify a coherent set of mathematical topics of which it can be reasonably be said that they are essential for students’ future success in our increasingly technological and data-driven society. “College and career ready,” yes, but also life and citizenship ready.
- It is easy to point to a certain favorite topic and say that the Common Core delays discussion of that topic, or places it in a grade level higher than it has been taught previously. It is also dangerous. There is no merit in placing a topic at a grade level where students are unable to do more than repeat procedures without understanding or reasoning. (One example would be the all-too-frequent expectation that students compute means and medians of sets of numbers, with no significant connection to context, and no discussion of when it would make sense to use one rather than the other.) It is necessary to look at any set of standards as a coherent whole, and ask whether students who meet all expectations of the standards have been held to a sufficiently high level.
- Any set of standards is a floor, not a ceiling. Any local school district, school or individual teacher may set expectations beyond the standards, if they choose to do so. There are certainly many students who will need more mathematics in high school than is required by the CCSSM: Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM)-intending students, or students who hope to attend an elite college or university, are two obvious groups. These students should indeed take more mathematics, and opportunities should be made available for them to do so. The standards question, however, is whether all students should be required to learn more mathematics than is in the CCSSM; our answer is “no.”
- Even for talented students, the rush to learn advanced topics and procedures should not come at the expense of students’ deeper understanding of the mathematical content being covered. Talented students also need quality guidance; they should not be rushed thoughtlessly for the sake of advancement.
- There are undoubtedly some professional mathematicians, scientists and engineers who claim that the CCSSM are insufficiently rigorous; it is our understanding that they are a small minority.
We entreat you to keep Wisconsin in the group of States that are adopting the CCSSM. We see the consequences of failed educational policies in our classrooms every day, and we only have the well being of our students in mind. The CCSSM is the right balance: already far higher than our previous State standards but not beyond what one can expect from a majority of students.
 Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy, accessed from http://www.highereducation.org/reports/college_readiness/gap.shtml on October 3, 2013.
 Report on Remedial Education in the UW System: Demographics, Remedial Completion, Retention and Graduation, September 2009, accessed from http://www.uwsa.edu/opar/reports/remediation.pdf on October 6, 2013.
 Findings of the Underprepared Learners Workgroup, accessed from http://systemattic.wtcsystem.edu/system_initiatives/prepared_learners/Findings.pdf on October 6, 2013.